Bangkok has played down reported plans to repatriate over 100,000 Burmese refugees now living in camps in western Thailand. Human rights groups say repatriation can only occur if there is a climate of safety.
Thousands of people have fled Myanmar in the past 20 years
The current debate over the Thai government's reported plans to repatriate over 100,000 refugees from Myanmar currently in camps in western Thailand was triggered during a visit by Wunna Muang Lwin, Myanmar’s new foreign minister, to Thailand.
The refugee issue was raised during talks between Wunna Muang Lwin, his Thai counterpart Kasit Piromya and the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, as well as in the national media.
Over 140,000 refugees - mostly ethnic Karen - are currently living in nine camps along the Thai border, having fled violence and internal conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Human rights groups say Myanmar has to be safe before refugees are repatriated
Media report that the plans came about after last year's elections that were largely criticized by the international community for not being free and fair.
Human rights groups advocate caution
However, the reports of repatriation plans have raised alarm among human rights groups and refugee assistance organizations in Thailand.
Jack Dunford, the executive director of the refugee aid agency Thailand Burma Border Consortium, thinks people risk being subjected to violence on the part of the military if they return to Myanmar.
"We all want to see the camps close," he said. "But the evidence suggests that the situation in eastern Burma has not improved. Conflict and human rights abuses continue and are creating more refugees at the present time rather than providing a situation where refugees can go home."
Ethnic Shan communities have reported dozens of clashes in Shan state over recent weeks. The English-language newspaper The Nation warned against sending people into "war zones" on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Alternative ASEAN Network said those forced to return faced threats of human rights abuses.
"The reality is that these people are being pushed back into situations where they will be subjected to more war crimes and crimes against humanity," the Network's spokeswoman Debbie Stothardt said. "The international community, and especially ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries, need to understand their international obligations under international law."
Thai government tries to reassure rights groups
On Wednesday, the Thai government moved to reassure rights groups the refugees would be sent back only when the situation was safe.
"The implementation of the policy will be dependent upon the safety of the people who will be returned home eventually and the readiness of the Myanmar government to accommodate such a return," a government spokesman said.
"Therefore, there’s no timeline set for the implementation of the policy. But since the situation in Myanmar is now going forward according to the reconciliation plan, Thailand has to prepare for that eventuality."
Many ethnic minorities face persecution in Myanmar
UN High Commission for Refugees spokesperson, Kitty McKinsey, warned that the Thai government should be very cautious. "If the Thai government is talking about a voluntary repatriation there are international standards that have to be met and one of the conditions is that the place has to be safe - there should not be landmines for example. But this is a very long-term process," she said.
Internal conflicts in Myanmar over the past 20 years, largely fuelled by ethnic communities fighting for autonomy, have sent thousands fleeing into Thailand.
Myanmar's poor economy and tight political controls have also swelled the numbers of refugees and economic migrants.
Analysts say that only political reconciliation in Myanmar will lead to an end to the refugee flight.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Grahame Lucas